Jerusalem honors 90-year-old Ethiopian composer with first concert

Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù, a nun living in Jerusalem's Old City, is one of Ethiopia's first classical pianists. Her musical genius was finally put on display at a recent concert.

Courtesy of Gali Tibbon/Jerusalem Season of Culture
Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù, a descendant of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, is one of the country's first classical pianists. Also a nun, she has lived at Jerusalem's Ethiopian Monastery for the past 30 years.

If you walk down the Street of the Prophets toward the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City, turn onto Ethiopia Street, and step into the Kidane Meheret church, you may hear the sounds of pianist, composer, and devout nun Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù.

A descendant of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie born in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in 1923, Sister Guebrù received early piano training in Switzerland and became one of the first classical musicians to emerge from her country.

Although she has recorded a handful of albums throughout her life and made her home inside Jerusalem's Ethiopian Monastery for the past 30 years, few Israelis knew she existed, let alone lived in their midst. The concert provided the Israeli audience with just one poignant example of the diverse personalities and communities that live here, often unnoticed and sometimes suppressed.

Her works were performed on an Israeli stage for the first time Tuesday night, as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s second annual Sacred Music Festival. Entitled “A tribute concert to the legendary composer that lives at the Ethiopian Monastery in Jerusalem,” it was made possible by Israeli pianist and sound artist Maya Duneitz, who tracked Guebrù down eight years ago after becoming enthralled by one of her albums.

Ms. Duneitz, the musical director of a project to transcribe and perform Guebrù's music, worked with Guebrù over the past two years to create sheet music for 12 of her compositions, which until then had only existed as Guebrù’s penciled scribbles. She also collaborated with Israeli academic and paper artist Meytal Ofer from the Jerusalem Season of Culture to publish a collection of essays on Guebrù's life and work, Ethiopian music, and the history of the Christian Ethiopian community in Jerusalem. The book is published in English, Hebrew, and Amharic along with the sheet music, which has never before been published anywhere in the world.

Guebrù, now 90 years old, sat quietly in the front row of the West Jerusalem YMCA’s Moorish concert hall as Ms. Duneitz and various other Israeli, Ethiopian, and Ethiopian-Israeli musicians performed her compositions, along with a few Christian Ethiopian prayers and folksong, combining both the sacred and the secular. While there were hopes that she herself would take to the stage, Guebrù remained humbly in her seat.

In this contested and divided city dominated by ethnic, religious and nationalist politics, the little-known life and culture of a musician and devout nun was given robust voice. It was a rare moment of recognition for the other and a reminder that Jerusalem can be a place that acknowledges the rich diversity of cultures and faiths, and that respects the distinct identity and lifestyles of those who live here.

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